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NBA AM: Aldridge Rushes Return As Blazers Struggle

With the Portland Trail Blazers struggling, LaMarcus Aldridge is trying to return as soon as possible. … Indiana Pacers concerned about their slump

Alex Kennedy

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Aldridge Rushes Return As Blazers Struggle

After an incredible start to the season that saw the Portland Trail Blazers exceed all expectations, the team has dropped nine of their last 13 games and slipped to the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

While other West contenders such as the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets have played some of their best basketball in recent weeks and seem poised to enter the postseason with momentum, Portland has struggled mightily. Making the playoffs seemed inevitable weeks ago, but now the Blazers are just two and a half games ahead of the ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns.

The Blazers have dropped games against non-playoff teams like the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers this month, and they needed overtime to defeat the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks. After Tuesday’s loss to Orlando, Damian Lillard said that this was the low point of the season and Robin Lopez wondered aloud if the team understood the importance of this final stretch.

Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge has had to watch the team’s struggles from a distance as he’s nursing a back contusion that has sidelined him for seven straight games. The injury occurred on March 12, when Aldridge’s back slammed to the floor after a collision with Spurs center Aron Baynes. The team clearly misses Aldridge, who is averaging 23.4 points and 11.1 rebounds this season. He’s an integral part of Portland’s attack on both ends of the floor, filling the stat sheet and creating opportunities for others.

The star power forward wanted to play on Tuesday against the Magic, but had trouble running prior to the game. He’ll try to practice at full speed on Wednesday, facing contact for the first time, and then attempt to return for Portland’s game against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday.

“I wanted to play tonight, but I can’t run,” Aldridge said following the Blazers’ loss to the Magic. “So if you can’t run then what do you do? I’ve been wanting to come back. I didn’t think it would take this long, but it ended up being more serious than we thought it was. I’ve just been trying to get back out there. It’s a process and we’ve done everything that we can do, the medical staff and myself. I’m going to work out tomorrow and see how it feels. … I’m trying to go no matter what [on Thursday]. If I look good enough to play, then I’m going to play. It’s on the medical staff.”

Aldridge’s mobility has been the biggest issue as he tries to come back. The back contusion is limiting his movement, which has kept him from getting back on the court.

“It messes with your running,” Aldridge said. “The last couple of days have been better, so that’s been positive. … It’s gotten better. The last two days it has been better, but it’s not normal. I still had a discomfort running and that’s why I wasn’t out there, I couldn’t really move. But the last two days have been great.

“It’s not really my game that I’m worried about, it’s just being able to move. I mean my lateral quickness seems fine, it’s just running. I hit that spot, and when you flex back your glute, it touches that spot that I really knocked hard on the floor, so that’s my only worry.”

Having to sit back and watch the Blazers drop game after game has been hard on Aldridge, and he admits that he’s trying to get back from injury as soon as possible because of the current state of the team.

“It makes me want to play even worse, yes it does,” Aldridge said. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the medical staff and when they say I can play. I’ve been wanting to play, but honestly if you can’t move then you can’t play. …  It’s been hard because I know what I can help with at times, I’ve seen areas where I can make guys’ life easier out there. I know at times they can use what I do, so it’s been hard to watch. But I had to do it, I had no choice. I’ve tried to take what I saw and tried to store it in my memory so when I start playing again I know what I saw and I make sure I don’t do it. I can’t sit for long periods of time [watching the games], so I’m up and down, talking to the TV, pacing around, things like that.”

When asked what’s wrong with the Blazers, Aldridge said that he thinks the team is worn down.

“Guys are tired,” Aldridge said. “It’s a tough road trip and our shots aren’t falling right now. Guys are competing and playing hard and playing the right way, it’s just guys are just tired. Hopefully I can come back next game and try to help out with that. Guys are playing hard, it’s just our shots are not falling and guys are just tired. … [I can tell from the] body language. Guys are trying, but they’re, like, one step slow. I know guys want to win and I know all these guys work hard, it’s just we are one step slow.

“There’s a sense of urgency to get wins, as there should be. We definitely let ourselves slide too far. We all want to get wins right now and we understand the magnitude of trying to trying to take care of business right now, so I think everybody knows the importance of winning. … I’m trying to stay in the moment. We need wins. I want to get healthy. I want to play again. That’s my main focus right now.”

The three-time All-Star hasn’t been vocal during Portland’s slump, letting the players on the floor figure things out while he’s recovering.

“Not really, it’s tough; [I feel like] if you’re not playing then you don’t do too much talking,” Aldridge said. “I’ve said things to certain people, but I haven’t been very vocal since I’ve been out because if I’m not out there battling with you then I don’t feel like I should be saying too much.”

Aldridge was sidelined with a groin injury in February, and it took him awhile to get back into a rhythm once he returned. He doesn’t believe that will be the case this time around, since he has been able to stay active while he has been out.

“I’ve had more time this time to work out,” Aldridge said. “Last time, I went from nothing to full speed to playing. This time is more of a transition period of ‘let’s see you run, let’s see you shoot.’ So I’ve worked out the last three to four days, it’s been more stationary shooting and minimal movement. I’ve had more time to really find my rhythm. Last time I went from sitting on my couch and I couldn’t move to playing. This time has been more of a transition period, so I think I’ll be fine.”

The Blazers are 45-27 and if the playoffs started today, they would face the Rockets in the first round.

Pacers Concerned About Recent Slump

For much of the season, the Indiana Pacers have been a juggernaut and clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference. While they still sit atop the East with a 51-20 record, the team has been playing poorly lately, struggling on the offensive end and dropping seven of 14 games in March.

After adding Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner last month, it seemed like the Pacers were going to take their game to another level and solidify themselves as arguably the best team in basketball. That hasn’t happened, as Indiana’s offense has sputtered and the team has entered their worst slump of the season.

“It just seems like we’re not clicking,” Roy Hibbert told USA TODAY’s Jeff Zillgitt. “We should be clicking right now toward the end of the season.”

“Our execution isn’t where we want it to be,” Paul George said. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be as far as screening, setting guys up, moving with some energy and cutting off the ball. Everything’s just lackadaisical. That’s going to get you beat.”

The Pacers’ points per game and shooting percentage have dipped in March, and the team is scoring 99.4 points per 100 possessions. Indiana’s offense is 22nd in points per game, and it’s clear the players are concerned about how they’ll fare in the postseason with such a glaring hole.

“I just look at other teams’ play and they just swing, swing, swing the ball and somebody gets an open shot or a wide-open layup,” Hibbert said. “How do we get those types of shots where we don’t have to heave something up at the end of the shot clock? With that type of stuff, you can’t get into a rhythm. It’s just not one-on-one basketball.”

While the Pacers shouldn’t have any trouble early in the playoffs considering how weak the East is, they could run into issues when facing the Miami HEAT or, if they represent the East in the Finals, one of the Western Conference’s contenders.

“If we do get that point [in the playoffs] and face those guys (the HEAT) again – if we do – we have to figure this thing out now because they’re such a good team, they’re going to sniff that out,” Hibbert said.

“We have to do a better job of playing with more energy,” George added. “We’ve just been dead, it seems, on the court lately. That’s not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy. I thought we kind of lost that. … I don’t know what happened to it, where it went, but we’re going to need that because that’s when we’re special.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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The Most Disappointing Teams So Far

Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that have disappointed so far this season.

Shane Rhodes

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Approaching the season’s quarter mark, NBA teams are finally starting to settle into their respective grooves. As more and more players become comfortable, their teams begin to demonstrate what they can really do on the court. While some teams have exceeded expectations, a number of teams have underperformed and are looking worse, in some cases much worse, than expected.

Here are six of the NBA’s most disappointing teams so far this season.

6. Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks were going to be bad this season. They just weren’t expected to be this bad.

At 3-15, the Mavericks currently hold the worst record in the NBA. They rank 27th and 22nd in offensive and defensive rating, coming in at 99.3 and 107.6, respectively. Collectively, they are shooting just 42.2 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from three-point range, both below league average. Nerlens Noel, whom Dallas acquired at the trade deadline last season, has played sparingly.

But there is seemingly a light at the end of the tunnel. The Mavericks’ three wins have come against the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks, three teams that made the playoffs a season ago and are expected to do so again this season. Victories against the Wizards — who are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference at 10-7 — and the Bucks — who boast one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo — are especially encouraging.

As of now, though, the team is still a mess on both sides of the ball.

5. Miami HEAT

The Miami HEAT were expected to be playoff contenders after a torrid second half last season that saw them win 30 of their final 42 games. Now, the HEAT are currently sitting at the 11th seed in the East and, with a record of 7-9, are currently boasting a worse record than the New York Knicks (9-7), Indiana Pacers (10-8) and the Los Angeles Lakers (8-10).

The offense just hasn’t arrived yet in South Beach. Miami has an offensive rating of 103.13, good for 26th in the NBA. They are shooting under league average from the field (44.5 percent) and from three (35.2 percent) and are fifth in turnovers per game with 16.6 per contest; not exactly a winning formula. The $50 million man Kelly Olynyk has contributed just 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game while the roster outside its starting unit looks flimsy at best. Dion Waiters hasn’t shot the ball as well as last season, either.

The schedule doesn’t get easier for the HEAT, with four upcoming games against the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in their next seven. Expect Miami to get even worse before they start to get better.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks were the sixth seed in the East. They boast one of the best young cores in the league, headed by phenom Antetokounmpo and supported by the likes of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and, eventually, Jabari Parker.

Somehow, the Bucks find themselves at just 8-8.

In a weakened Eastern Conference, Milwaukee was expected to make a play for one of its top spots. Instead, the Bucks have gotten blown out by the Mavericks, while barely squeaking by teams like the Charlotte Hornets and Lakers. The Bucks are 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating with a mark of 106.5, worse than the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls while also sitting at 23rd in net rating at -2.2, behind the Los Angeles Clippers (-1.7) and Utah Jazz (-1.3).

Antetokounmpo has yet to improve his stroke from beyond the arc, an undesirable albeit expected deficiency in his game. But, much of the Bucks roster hasn’t shot well from three. Middleton is shooting just 32.1 percent while big-acquisition Eric Bledsoe is shooting an abysmal 16 percent from beyond the arc since arriving in Milwaukee. If they can’t improve here it will be extremely hard for the Bucks to improve their position in the standings.

With six of their next nine games coming against teams at or below .500, the Bucks have a great chance to rebound from their sluggish start. That doesn’t change the fact that, with one of the NBA’s more talented rosters, the Bucks have been a major disappointment up to this point.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won five straight games. Most would say that would or should exempt them from a list like this.

They would be wrong.

The collective record of the teams Cleveland has played during its five-game win streak? 35-48. It may be encouraging to the fans to see the team rattle off five straight, but the Cavaliers aren’t exactly beating the best teams in the Association. They have been careless with the ball as well, turning it over more than 15 times per game while

Their biggest problem, however, is the fact that they can defend absolutely no one. With a defensive rating of 109.4, the Cavaliers have the worst defense in the league. They have gotten away with a lackluster effort in the past, Cleveland’s current roster, outside of LeBron James, just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to make up for it. And the offense has been good; Cleveland is currently averaging 110.9 points per game with an offensive rating of 109.4, but that leaves them with a big goose egg for their net rating.

The Cavaliers will continue to struggle to beat teams as they attempt to outpace them on the offensive end. For a team that has made three straight NBA Finals and has one of the greatest of all time on its roster, that should certainly be regarded as a disappointment.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Another “Big-3” was formed in the NBA after Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were paired with reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook in the offseason. However, the 2017-18 season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan for the Thunder

Labeled as a team to rival the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy, the Thunder have done anything but so far this season. While the individual stats counting of Westbrook, George and Anthony have looked good, the Thunder have not as a collective. The team sits at just 7-9, good for 10th in the Western Conference. They rank 19th, 23rd and 21st in the NBA in points, rebounds and assists per game, respectively while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 35 percent from three, both good for 21st.

Westbrook’s early season shooting struggles have hurt the Thunder as well. Westbrook is shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three. The dominance he displayed last season, especially late in games, just hasn’t appeared this season and the team is hurting because of it. If the Thunder want to move up in the standings, Westbrook will need to find a way to improve his shooting numbers; they will go as he goes much like last season, even with George and Anthony on the roster.

On a brighter note, the defense has been one of the best in the NBA. But if the Thunder can’t figure it out on offense and score well as a unit, they will continue to struggle, especially when having to face the high-octane offenses of the Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

When losing a player the caliber of Chris Paul, some regression is to be expected. Fortifying the roster with guards Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic and forward Danilo Gallinari, however, the Clippers were expected to weather the storm, to an extent.

Early on the Clippers did exactly that. The team looked impressive in the early going, winning five of their first seven games and averaging 109 points per. Since then? Everything has seemingly gone downhill in Los Angeles, and fast.

The Clippers have lost nine straight by an average margin of 9.8 points per game. Thirteenth in the Western Conference with a 5-11 record, they have looked nothing like the playoff team they were expected to be and are by far the season’s biggest disappointment. They have played poorly on the defensive end, ranking 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.2. Opponents have shot 45.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three against them.

Things haven’t been the greatest on offense, either. In Paul’s absence, the Clippers have dropped from 15th in assists per game a year ago to 28th this season, averaging just 19.6 per game. While they are averaging 104.9 points per game, they are doing so on just 44.1 percent shooting.

Injuries have played a major role in the Clippers struggles; additions Beverly, Gallinari and Teodosic have all missed or are currently missing time with injury. But it’s discouraging to see that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are unable to elevate the Clippers outside of the Western Conference basement.

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NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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